AWFJ Women On Film – Lisa Cholodenko Talks About “Kids,” Collaborating and Joni Mitchell – Tricia Olszewski interviews

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In terms of relationships both romantic and familial, Lisa Cholodenko may just have created the perfect film for 2010. “The Kids Are All Right” stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a lesbian couple whose teenage children (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) seek out their sperm-donor dad (Mark Ruffalo).

As the kids and then the women get to know him, all manner of issues spring up: Ruffalo’s Paul, though he runs an organic farm and restaurant, is a freewheeling biker, casually sleeping around and almost proud of the fact that he dropped out of college. Nic (Bening), a Type A doctor, is appalled. Jules (Moore), a New Age-y landscaper, is intrigued — to a potentially disastrous degree. And Laser (Hutcherson) and older sis Joni (Wasikowska) alternately, and repeatedly, cycle through feelings of respect and resentment.

The film’s seemingly straightforward plot is funny, thought-provoking, and loaded with teachable moments about not only this particular family’s predicament but also the tough times that are inevitable in parenting, committed relationships, teenage rebellion, and even brother-sister dynamics. Here Cholodenko talks about her personal ties to the film, her first time collaborating on a script, and how Joni Mitchell keeps her creative juices flowing.

OLSZEWSKI: You and your partner conceived your son via artificial insemination. Was that your inspiration for the film?

CHOLODENKO: Yes, we did. And I think the original — well, conception, if you will — came from having spent so much time thinking about that, deciding to have a child that way, and choosing the donor we ultimately went with, and all the questions that came out of that experience.

OLSZEWSKI: Can you imagine integrating the donor into your family like they do in the movie?

CHOLODENKO: Absolutely. My girlfriend and I are completely open to our son knowing this person. We hope, when he comes of age, that he can.

OLSZEWSKI: How is the title significant to the story?

CHOLODENKO: I think originally it was just a working title. But it just kind of fit. We’d think, “Oh, that makes sense,” and giggle, but in the back of our minds thought we’d rename it something else. And there was never anything that ended up fitting so well. I liked, as the script got worked and worked and worked, that it seemed to have a lot of different meanings. There was a double entendre going on. It’s sort of a wink to all those people who wonder if kids from unconventional families are O.K.

OLSZEWSKI: A few months ago there was an uproar over Newsweek reporter Ramin Setoodeh opining that gay actors are unconvincing in straight roles. With Bening and Moore being such big stars, do you think the inverse criticism could become a factor here?

CHOLODENKO: You know, I’m sure there are going to be people out there who just can’t fundamentally transcend what they know about Julianne Moore and Annette Bening — that they’re married, that they’re straight. I guess that’s the risk you take when you cast known stars. But my objective was to get the best actors for these parts. I was totally open to gay actors if I thought they were right for it. But I just felt like these guys would nail it, and they worked on a believability scale for me. So I went with it.

OLSZEWSKI: Annette’s character is so wonderfully passive-aggressive, and I think in general you write such great dialogue. Why did you decide to have a co-writer this time?

CHOLODENKO: It kind of came up naturally. I had started the script, I was probably less than 25 pages into the first draft, when I ran into Stuart [Blumberg], who’s an old friend from New York. And we just started gabbing about our careers, and the kinds of things we like and wanted to be writing and doing. I told him about what I was working on, and then he revealed that he had been a sperm donor in college. One thing led to another, and it occurred to me that there was a kismet thing going on. I always wanted to write with somebody else, because I find writing is pretty lonely. So I asked him spontaneously; there wasn’t a lot of premeditation on my part.

OLSZEWSKI: Did you enjoy working with a co-writer? Is that something you would do again?

CHOLODENKO: I did, I absolutely did. And I thought it was really a pleasure to write with Stuart because I felt that we brought a diversity of perspective to the film. It wasn’t like he just took on the male characters and I the females — you know, that I’m a West Coast gay woman with a family and he’s a straight, single man living in New York. It was great to have all that perspective. I think it really helped to flesh things out.

OLSZEWSKI: The film is so textured. What do you want people to take away from the story?

CHOLODENKO: I think in many ways it’s a pro-family movie. The view that Stuart and I shared is that family is what you make it, and it’s a modern life. There’s no paradigm for the right kind of family and the right kind of parenting. There are certain core values that we believe in, and one of them is trying to work through your problems, and stay true, and stay together if possible.

OLSZEWSKI: Are you as big a Joni Mitchell fan as Nic and Jules? I read that in your last film, “Laurel Canyon,” Frances McDormand’s character is based on Joni, too.

CHOLODENKO: Yeah, that came from a love of Mitchell, the whole “ladies of the Canyon” thing, and thinking about women who lived there in the ’70s. I’m a huge fan. She had a massive influence on me when I was growing up and I’ve continued to love her through the years. And in terms of becoming a writer, thinking about how to write about people’s inner lives, she was the inspiration.

OLSZEWSKI: What’s next for you?

CHOLODENKO: I don’t know. I’m talking to people, I’m reading scripts. I’m interested in television, I’m interested in films — I’m open. But I’m committed to getting back to work sooner rather than later.

OLSZEWSKI: Have you seen any good movies this summer?

CHOLODENKO: Oh my God, I am not the person to ask. Well, I’ve seen “Toy Story 3” — I thought it was pretty good on a technical level. But I’ve been out of it. I am a fan of this woman who’s considered a very independent filmmaker, Debra Granik, and she has a small film out called “Winter’s Bone.” I haven’t seen it, but it’s getting a lot of attention. She’s a pretty special filmmaker, so I want to put a plug in for her.

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Tricia Olszewski

Movie critic and international gadabout Tricia Olszewski can often be spotted running out of screenings in the Washington, D.C., area muttering her favorite critique, courtesy of Bart Simpson: "I didn't think it was physically possible, but this both sucks and blows." She published her first film-related article while working in a Buffalo, N.Y., multiplex, inspired by lunatic Jurassic Park crowds clamoring to get into the showings "where the seats shook." They were talking, of course, about the new DTS sound technology, but the intense rumor-mongering that audio innovations tend to inspire had them believing they were seeing the sequel to MANT! So she wrote an (allegedly humorous) essay about it, in the process discovering a flair for pointing out the idiotic. Naturally, a gig at the Washington City Paper followed. More than a decade later, she's the last film critic standing. Tricia also contributes reviews to the Colorado Springs Independent and PopMatters and has written about music and theater for the Washington Post, prompting her to nurture hobbies such as filing and data entry. She's a member of the Washington, D.C., Area Film Critics Association and counts Michael Mann, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino among her favorite directors. Technically, she's neither "international" nor a "gadabout."